03 August 2015

Mrs. Brown in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe

In Passion's Fiery Pit
Joy Brown
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

In Passion's Fiery Pit features a misprint unlike any other I've seen:

Not Joy Brown's fault, of course, but it does say something about her publisher. News Stand Library didn't much care what it published or who it published. In its stable, Joy Brown stands as lone mare alongside Hugh Garner, Ted Allan, Al Palmer, Raymond Souster and H. Gordon Green in having had something of a writing career. Given her early struggles with punctuation, this is truly remarkable.

In Passion's Fiery Pit was Brown's second novel. The first, Murdered Mistress, had been published by News Stand Library a few months earlier. Night of Terror, her third, was a pre-romance Harlequin. It hit the stands about eight weeks later.

Three novels in one year. Do not be impressed.

In Passion's Fiery Pit begins with a bit of a cheat. What's depicted as murder will later be revealed as assault. The victim, Alicia Wallace, turns up dead on the very next page, just the same. Her body is discovered amongst the exotic plants in the conservatory of wealthy bachelor Robert Roget.

Yes, a conservatory. Roget builds upon the cliché, sniffing: "It's damned embarrassing… I mean with a houseful of guests."

Houseful? Well, there's Paul Stewart, wife Gwyneth and brother Bridge. The Greys – Tim and Trixie – are also there. That's five, right? Not really a houseful, not for a mansion, though things get a touch more crowded when the police show up. Detective Dan Weaver leads the investigation.

Dan's an interesting fellow. The novel's hero, when first seen he's drinking in the beauty of Alicia's cooling corpse… the curve of her cheek, her full lips and her shapely calves. "She was the kind of girl Dan Weaver had been wanting to meet for a long time. Unfortunately, she was dead."

The trail leads straight to the Three Bells nightclub:
Dan Weaver did a double take. The somebody sitting on the piano should have been lying in a steaming conservatory with her skull crushed. But here she was singing in a hushed, tuneless voice. Nobody seemed to care what sort of a singer she'd make.
Here the author dodges cliché by making Alicia's doppelgänger, torch singer Phyllis, a younger sister. Alicia may have been as bad, but she was no evil twin.

Because Dan clearly has a type, he falls for Phyllis, and redoubles his efforts to solve the murder. He's not afraid to cut a corner in getting at the truth. This Canadian is fully prepared to walk into a room without knocking first.

Sergeant Cummings, Dan's superior, is infuriated by this maverick behaviour:
"I've mentioned that to you before. You're still on the force, you know, even if you're not in uniform, and the rules are that..."
     "But you find out more this way. I make a few exceptions to a few rules. I like a variation of a theme. And see what happens? I find two boudoir scenes in one afternoon." Dan waved his hand, "What is this thing called procedure."
     Cummings frowned. He had mentioned things like this to Weaver before, but the younger man paid no attention.
The two boudoir scenes aren't all that much – a fully clothed woman walks out of a bedroom, a man comforts a grieving widow – and neither is pertinent to the case. Dan is overselling things. He really has no idea what he's doing. I'm not sure Brown did, either. In the course of his investigation, Dan settles on Alicia's former husband Jeff Wallace as the murderer, for no other reason than they divorced. You know, acrimony and all that. Blackmail, too, though this makes no sense.

As Alicia's ex doesn't seem to be around, Dan becomes convinced that one of the men present on the night of the murder is in actuality Wallace. He's proven wrong in a most public way by Phyllis, but feels no embarrassment. Dan's big break comes at the end of the novel when the murderer drinks too much and spills the beans. Sergeant Cummings is impressed.

In truth, Dan isn't much of a detective, and In Passion's Fiery Pit isn't much of a mystery. It's no wonder that News Stand Library tried to sell the thing as something spicy: "GREEN EYES - RED HAIR - and FLAMING LIPS", but no mention of murder. Sadly, the hottest action involves women primping before mirrors and crossing rooms in varying states of undress. There's lots of lingerie, though much of it is superfluous:
She scampered ahead of him into the bedroom, and then proceeded to dress before his interested eyes in such a flurry of panties, garters belts, bras and stockings that she was fully clothed in a brief moment.
Brief moment.

No pun intended.

To my great surprise, the word "diaphanous" doesn't feature.

Object and Access: A typical News Stand Library production with requisite 160 pages. The cover is by Syd Dyke.

My copy was purchased in June from a New York bookseller. Price: US$4.00. I was lucky. Just four copies are listed for sale online, the cheapest of which goes for C$20.00. At C$140.00, the one you want to buy is graced with another of those odd and uncommon NSL dust jackets.

Not listed on Amicus or WorldCat.

My thanks to Bowdler at Canadian Fly-By-Night for the image of Murdered Mistress.

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22 July 2015

Hugh Garner: Article Lost, Article Found

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1962

Toronto: Ryerson, 1968
Markhan, ON: PaperJacks, 1983
Toronto: Dundurn, 2011

A Bonus:
Regarding the sales of "The Silence On The Shore" [sic] I think it has done remarkably well, considering that its publisher didn't want to sell any copies of it at all. I think, however, that had I not wanted to sell it I would have kept its sales down below 1,400, even if I would have to burn the books. 
     My personal feelings to you are friendly, but from a business and professional point of view I think it better that we do not involve each other with the other any more. 
– Hugh Garner, letter to Jack McClelland, 28 August 1963

15 July 2015

The Man Who Hated Toronto

Present Reckoning
Hugh Garner
Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1951

Tom Neelton has arrived too late for the party, but he doesn't care. It's the morning after V-J Day and he has just stepped off a train at Union Station. Outside, steamers hang limply from lampposts and confetti clogs the gutters.

What is he doing here?

Tom hates Toronto. Though born and raised in the city, "it had been something he had had to fight, an enemy of brick and stone and smug condescension." Tom's mother and father are dead. His nearest kin is a dishonest aunt with whom he made the mistake of storing his civilian clothes before shipping out. She'll claim that the moths got to them.

Again, what is he doing here?

At first, I thought the answer lay in Carol Berkett. Seven years ago, when he was twenty-five and she was seventeen, they'd gone out for a bit. She'd even brought him home to meet her mom. Roast was served. Tom and Carol did some necking on the chesterfield. He never called on her again.

He's now thinking he made a mistake. Tom imagines a better life, one in which Carol would have been waiting at the train station. He returns to familiar digs, a cheap room in the Pentland Hotel (read: Warwick Hotel), determined to track her down. But it turns out that she's not in the phone book. Her mom's not in the phone book either. Then, "like a soft slap against his consciousness", it occurs to him that Carol might be married.

So he gives up and is soon snogging Margaret, the buxom blonde who works the front desk.

Tom guessed right about Carol. We know because Garner devotes several chapters to her marriage.


Not unhappy. Husband George, a punch press operator, has come to accept that his passion for amateur radio is not shared. He sometimes gets a good chuckle out of Blondie, which is his wife's favourite comic strip. Carol, who often thinks of her brief romance with Tom, becomes much more contented after the birth of baby Harold.

Clearly, Tom and Carol are destined to meet, but this doesn't occur before the second half of the novel. Until then, the returning veteran kills time drinking with friends in the local beer parlour. Margaret decamps for Kamloops, Tom takes up with bohemian art school student Louise Kramer and Garner runs up the word count.

Biographer Paul Stewe is dismissive of Present Reckoning, focussing in on what he considers a melodramatic climax. In the monograph he penned for the Canadian Writers & their [sic]Works series, George Fetherling describes it as "a little novel which depends far too much on chance meetings, coincidence and on the double-whammy at the end and is nowhere near the level of Garmer's best prose."

I agree with that last bit. That said, I count only two coincidences or chance meetings:
  • Louise sees Tom in a museum one week, then spots him a library the next.
  • Twelve months after returning to town, Tom encounters old flame Carol on the street.
These things happen.

I won't spoil the ending, other that to say that I found it believable, strong enough, more than a little upsetting and not the least bit melodramatic. But what I really took away from Present Reckoning – what is really of value – is its depiction of Toronto in the months after the war.

Carol lives in a new development, ever aware of the prying eyes of neighbouring housewives. George's company prepares for the new peacetime economy. Tom looks over glasses of beer, gauging the progress of a disfigured drinking buddy's reconstructed face. He'll also make the mistake of returning to an old haunt where he's confronted by "young punks in zoot-suit pants and girls in Eisenhower jackets." Tom later describes the scene to Carol:
"They danced differently than we did, wore their hair in brush cuts and feathered bobs, and stared at me standing on the sidelines as though I was a bouncer. I moved over near the orchestra and spent an hour or so listening to the music trying to recapture the feeling I had in the old days, but it was no use. I didn't belong there."
There's something not to like about Present Reckoning. It meanders in a way that had me wondering whether Garner wasn't drawing from unpublished stories and other jottings. After all, he'd done just that the year before with the pseudonymous Waste No Tears.

Again, I agree with my friend George that this is not Garmer's best prose. And yet passages like this, in which newly arrived Tom is confronted by his first sight of the Royal York Hotel, are just about the greatest things he ever wrote:
The hotel – Largest in the British Empire – squatted sullenly against the opposite sidewalk, daring those leaving the station to pass it by without a glance. He forced his eyes along its self-satisfied exterior and thought back to the days of its opening fifteen years before. There had been much fanfare then, with big-wigs by the score. Ben Bernie's orchestra, a porter for every bag and doormen garbed in coachman's habit. During the depression the coachmen had disappeared along with many of the other opulent ostentations, and for years the edifice had gone on like a bankrupt dowager, bravely pretending that things had not changed and that its hundreds of empty rooms were full of guests. To him it symbolized the city: smug, part good taste and bad, a brave thing formed of a maladmixture of decency and sham.
What was Tom Neelton doing back in Toronto?

Better the hell you know.

He'll come to wish he'd never returned.

A Bonus: Over at Canadian Fly-By-Night, Bowdler identifies the corner depicted on the cover as Bay and Richmond. The scene does not feature in the novel.

Object and Access:: A 158-page novel with a further two pages advertising Peter Cheyney's Lady Behave and One of Those Things. Present Reckoning was Garner's third paperback original, and was printed but once. My copy, a Reading Copy in every sense, was purchased last month at London's Attic Books. Price: $7.50.

Sixty-four years after publication, the novel has become scarce. I've found just three copies listed for sale online – all Fine, they range in price from US$75 to US$100.

All of six university libraries and the Toronto Public Library have the book in their holdings. As might be expected, Library and Archives Canada fails.

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13 July 2015

John Buell Meets Ross Macdonald

The Pyx
John Buell
New York: Crest, 1960
De zaak Ferguson [The Ferguson Affair]
John Ross Macdonald [pseud. Kenneth Millar]
Rotterdam: Combinatie, 1963
Artist: Barye Phillips.

A Bonus:

Una lunga striscia d'asfalto [The Shrewsdale Exit]
John Buell
Milan: Mondadori, 1975
John Buell meets Easyriders magazine.

Artist: unknown.

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03 July 2015


The Crime of Ovide Plouffe [Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Alan Brown]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984

On 9 September 1949 a Canadian Pacific DC-3 exploded over Quebec's Cap Touremonte killing twenty-three passengers and crew. Amongst the former was Rita Guay, the twenty-eight-year-old wife of Quebec City jeweller and watchmaker Albert Guay. The plane was to have flown between Montreal and Baie Comeau. Mrs Guay boarded during a stopover in Sainte-Foy, just as a special delivery package was being placed in the cargo hull.

Two weeks later, on what just happened to be his thirty-first birthday, Mr Guay was arrested. The tip-off might have been that an acquaintance, Marguerite Pitre, had had that special delivery package put on the plane. Or it could've been that on the morning of the crash he'd taken out a $10,000 accidental death policy on his wife. Maybe it was the sorry fact that he'd been having an affair with a teenaged waitress named Marie-Ange Robataille. Other names came out in court, including that of Guay's business associate Généreux Ruest, a tubercular watchmaker who possessed the very skills necessary to make the bomb. Such a sordid tale. It even turned out that Albert Guay had been lying about being a jeweller and watchmaker. He was a salesman.

This novel grew from the tragedy, but also from Lemelin's work in adapting Les Plouffe, his most successful work, to the screen. That the resulting film was such a great critical and commercial success surely inspired.

Lemelin's first novel in three decades, The Crime of Ovide Plouffe  bolts out of the gate. The year is 1948. Théophile is dead, Ovide and Napoléon are married, and Guillaume works as a guide on Anticosti Island. Josephine and daughter Cécile now live alone in the same Quebec City flat that had once been such a hub of activity.

It will be hard grasp any of this without having read – or seen – Les Plouffe. Because I'd sat down with the novel not two months back, it held my interest.

As the title suggests, this is Ovide's story. Much of it has to do with the unlikely rise of a jewellery business he runs with a crippled watchmaker named Pacifique Berthet. Just as much has to do with his marriage to former boot factory worker Rita Toulouse.

Readers of Les Plouffe will remember Rita as being a bit loose. They'll also remember that Ovide has always been drawn to beauty. Rita is so beautiful that her former fiancé, impotent Stan Labrie, has managed to have her named the new Miss Sweet Caporal. He's also given her money to sleep with men, all clients of his low-key escort agency.

This last bit struck me as a stretch, but Lemelin – his omniscient narrator, anyway – assures that a fair number of housewives turned tricks in post-war Quebec.

Sweet and tender Rita tells herself she'll never, never do it again. And of course she won't – not until the next time. But when Stan orchestrates a drunken afternoon that turns into something resembling both a game show and a ménage a trios – I won't go into details – she realizes just how far she's fallen. Repentant, and possibly pregnant, Rita confesses her sins to her husband. Humilated, Ovide seizes upon the betrayal as justification to begin his pursuit of waitress Marie Jourdan, the only woman in all of Quebec City more beautiful than his wife.

If you're at all curious, Marie is described as looking something like French film siren Viviane Romance.

"It was like a bad melodrama," begins one chapter. For the most part The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is just that. Les Plouffe lose a dimension, becoming cardboard characters. Plot is predictable and disguises are donned. I've not encountered such a concentration of exclamation marks since Thomas P. Kelley:
There was no doubt about it, his rock in Berthet's pond had made waves! He must be biting his nails now! Just wait, just wait!
That was the narrator.

At 408 pages – an even 500 in the original French – The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is Lemelin's longest novel.

It needn't have been.

There's an awful lot of repetition. Plot points are raised time and again, as if Lemelin has no faith in the reader's memory, while stretches of nostalgia intrude:
They were there to hear Charles Trenet sing "Boum! When my little heart goes boum!" and "The sun has a rendezvous with the moon," and "When I was small," and "Ménilmontant." Charles Trenet's genius symbolized gaiety and youth, relegating pre-war songs to the mothballs and anticipating Presley and the Beatles.

Lemelin's debut, The Town Below, is one of the best novels I've read this year; The Plouffe Family, his second, was nearly as good. So, what happened?

Lemelin set those two novels in what was then the recent past. The Crime of Ovide Plouffe was written at a distance of more than three decades, a period divided by the Quiet Revolution. Markedly different times, Lemelin struggles in depicting the past, inserting observations that disturb the narrative.

Or was it simply a case of atrophy?

I like to think that Lemelin had more good novels in him, but we'll never know. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he managed just one more book, Autopsie d'un fumeur, a memoir inspired by that death sentence.

And Albert Guay? He was hanged. Généreux Ruest was transported to the scaffold by wheelchair. Marguerite Pitre holds the distinction of being the thirteenth and last woman to be executed in Canada.

Trivia: Lemelin knew Albert Guay before the disaster, attended Rita Guay's funeral, and covered the subsequent trial for Time. In the novel, Ovide's friend Denis Boucher covers the events for the very same magazine.

More trivia: The novel was adapted to the screen in a 1984 production directed by Denys Arcand. Not quite as well received as Les Plouffe, this clip from YouTube is all I've seen of the film. Neither scene features in the novel:

Object: The first and only English-language translation, this particular edition is the only in any language to have been published as a hardcover. It's also the most attractive. I bought my copy – signed – at the 1992 McGill University Book Sale for two dollars.

Access: Dozens of Canadian universities serve, but very few public libraries. Alan Brown's translation enjoyed just one printing in hardcover. In 1985, McClelland & Stewart reissued the novel as a mass market paperback. It too enjoyed one lone printing. Both feature Brian Boyd's excellent cover illustration.

Very Good copies of the first edition can be had for ten dollars. One Montreal bookseller is offering a signed copy at $44.95, but I find this a bit steep. Lemelin was very generous with his signature.

Not surprisingly, the French-language original has done much better, going through several editions including a movie tie-in. Stanké is its current publisher.

With sales in the six figures, used copies of the French-language original aren't terribly hard to find. Another Montreal bookseller has listed a signed first edition at $25.00.

Seems fair.

Go get it.

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01 July 2015

'O Canada! our native land thou art!'

Canadian Heart Songs
Charles Wesley McCrossan

Toronto: William Briggs, 1912

For this day, on which we mark the 148th anniversary of Canada's birth, these words of celebration. Here Charles Wesley McCrossan takes Calixa Lavallée's "French-Canadian National Anthem", makes it British and encourages pride in a nonexistent flag.

'Twas a different Canada back then.


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